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Energy and Environment

7 Questions (And Answers) About Wichita's Water Future (Updated)

r. Vore
flickr Creative Commons

Updated a 11:03 a.m.

There was a significant development this weekend with water levels at Cheney Reservoir.

Last Thursday's storm created heavy drainage into the lake, causing the level to rise from 64 percent last Thursday to 72 percent on Saturday. As of Monday morning, Cheney is up more than 13,000 acre feet of water since before the rain event last Thursday.

Two water reduction options were finalized last Thursday, the day of the rain storm. These specified either a $1,000 fine or rate increase of 500 percent for usage above 310 percent of normal winter levels.

Those options are being tabled for Tuesday's City Council discussion, in lieu of the water level gains experienced at Cheney on Friday and through the weekend. They are no longer recommended for action during the city council meeting on Tuesday.

Four additional actions are still recommended. These include a rebate program to provide incentives for conservation. Three other options would allow the city to reduce the water taken from Cheney by increasing the amount used from the city's other source: the Equus Beds aquifer.

However, the city says it is important to remember the drought is not over, but it has eased. Customers are still encouraged to minimize water usage, when possible, until drought conditions have been fully eliminated.

Original story:

A detailed presentation will be provided Tuesday at the City Council meeting.

Wichita City Council is expected to consider a recommendation Tuesday to fine residents if they use too much water.

The goal is to reduce Wichita’s outdoor water usage by about 50 percent. Wichita is in the third year of a prolonged drought with a diminished water supply, including Cheney Reservoir, which is projected to go dry by mid 2015.

KMUW’s Carla Eckels recently sat down with Ben Nelson from Wichita's public works and utilities department about the future of water usage in Wichita and the implications of this proposal.

1. Why impose a fine on water use?

The penalty was actually developed after a pretty lengthy and exhaustive public input process. We engaged our customers in a series of dozens of meetings and online town hall forum and some focus groups. What we heard from people is that 96 percent of people during that process said that they supported water restrictions and a total of 69 percent of people preferred that we have a penalty based approach.

2. So why a $1,000 fine?

The $1000 penalty is proposed at that level because of the seriousness of the drought. One of the things that we’re trying to do is as part of this proposed approach is reduce our outdoor water usage by about 50 percent and so the penalty has to be at a level that allows us to make that level of reduction in water usage. Ultimately the goal of that reduction in water usage is to extend the lifetime of Cheney Reservoir, which provides 60 percent of our water supply.

3. The fine would be imposed on those who use more than 310 percent of their average winter water usage. How does this work?

The 310 percent threshold is actually something that’s existing under our current rate structure. We have three rate tiers that have lower charges for indoor water usage and then you have block two and block three, which have higher charges because generally these are for outdoor uses. The third and highest rate block has always been usage above 310 percent, so what’s proposed actually fits in with the current rate structure.

What we plan to do if this proposal is passed is put two safeguards in place for them.

For one, provide a 30-day grace period, so people can see on their first bill after it get’s implemented whether they would have been penalized under that new structure and then basically is a warning for them.

The second thing we want to do is provide some tutorials for people to be able to look at their bill and figure out what that 310 percent threshold is for them and then provide some video or on online tutorials for people so that they would be able to look at their water meter and find out where they’re at in the middle of a month for instance. So that they're not having to guess as much with whether or not they’re going to go over so that 310 percent. What we want to do is try to frame it for customers and help them understand what that means for their bill going forward each month.

4. Now you know people might try to get around this. What about those who try to compensate by using more water during winter months?

There are kind of three issues that make that problematic for people.

Number one, the 2013 irrigation season, June, July and August, is coming up. The average winter consumption is already set for that. That 310 percent threshold is set for summer; there’s no way to change that.

Number two, anybody who’s wasting water to that level to try to boost that threshold in the winter time also would risk going into the penalty at that point. The penalty wouldn’t be effective in just in the summer; it would be effective in the winter time, as well. They could get penalized if they go over that threshold that’s already been established.

The third thing is that we’ve done some analysis on this to find out what the impact would be to somebody who does that. That average winter consumption also is the basis for sewer charges. So we’re talking a lot about water right now, but anybody who would use extra water in the winter time is going to raise the amount that they pay for the full year on their sewer charges. Ultimately it could end up costing a few hundred dollars more over the course of a year because they've increased their sewer charges. While sometimes lowering some of their water charges, the overall increase over the course of a year can actually end up costing more.

5. You mentioned earlier you’ve been hosting public meetings about water conservation. So what are some of the priorities?

The five highest rated strategies that came out of that, three of them deal with conservation, either regulating conservation measures, providing public education to people that want to voluntarily reduce water conservation or providing rebates and economic incentives to people who would be changing out clothes washers, dish washers, toilets and installing smart sensors on irrigation systems so that people have an incentive to use less water.

Another one of those top five priorities that came out of those strategies was to enact some sort of water restriction and the fifth one was to look at using our treated wastewater. When people use water, it goes down the drain. It goes to a waste water treatment plant. We clean it up and then its put into the river and goes down stream for someone else to use. So one of the things that folks have asked us to look into is reusing that treated waste water, sometimes called gray water, for irrigation or for non-potable uses.

6. We have been receiving some rain here and there, do we have any update on the current levels?

Staff right now is analyzing the current levels out at Cheney lake to see what impact has occurred with the more cool and wet weather that we’ve had the past several months including the storms from last Thursday. We’re going to have some information for the City Council in terms of how that may have affected the drought projections that we have for how long the water supply could last.

7. Do you anticipate that water rates will go up?

We’re trying our best to make sure that we don’t affect rates. That was one of the major priorities that came out of this public input process and, frankly, we hear it every year when we start talking about infrastructure and operational needs of the utilities. So we’re going to minimize as best we can any rate impacts. The proposed recommendation that would go to the City Council on Tuesday does not include any rate increases in order to generate new revenue for our needs in the utility.